Torah Reading for Shabbat September 23: HA-AZINU, Deuteronomy 32: 1-52
THE SONG OF G-D’S JUSTICE
Some songs are happy, some are sad. Some are for entertainment. Some come to tell a story or teach a lesson. Some express the inner heart and soul. Unique among all songs is the song of Moses in our parshah. HA-AZINU is the song of G-d’s perfect Justice — the ultimate reproof to man.
The Hebrew word for song, SHIRAH, is related to the word SHER, which means a chain or necklace. A song is a chain, thread or structure that connects various particulars together in order to make a meaningful order. As the very climax of the Torah, Moses’ song of HA’AZINU gives order and meaning to the history of the people of Israel with its great highs and terrible lows. Everything comes to show the faultless, inexorable justice of G-d. “The Rock — His work is perfect, for all His ways are Justice, the G-d of faithfulness in Whom there is no wrong, He is righteous and straight!” (Deut. 32:4).
This may be easy to say, but it is very hard to actually know and believe in our heart of hearts. Nevertheless Moses challenges us to join him in this song of testimony, so that we too will know and declare G-d’s justice. The song is “interactive”: Moses chants, calling upon us to respond. “For I will call upon the Name of HaShem — ascribe greatness to our G-d” (ibid. v. 3). This verse is the Torah source for the prayer leader’s call to prayer and the congregational response, both in the synagogue — BAR’CHU — and at the table introducing the blessings after eating bread — NEVORECH (Brachos 45a). HA-AZINU challenges us to respond: to wake up, see and acknowledge G-d’s truth and justice, and to respond in the proper way, by repenting. HA-AZINU is such an important expression of the essence of Israel’s faith and destiny that some communities had the custom of reciting it daily in the morning prayers together with SHIRAS HAYAM (“Song of the Sea”) (Rambam, Laws of Prayer 7:13). In the Temple, successive portions of HA-AZINU were read every Shabbos in a six-week cycle as part of the service accompanying the Shabbos additional offering (Rambam, Temidim Umusafim 6:9).
“Listen, O heavens, and I will speak. Hear, O earth, the words of my mouth” (Deut. 32:1). Moses calls upon the heavens and earth, G-d’s impassive, unwaveringly obedient servants, as his witnesses. For mortal man is too devious and full of ploys to be a valid witness — he has a vested interest: he wants to justify himself. “Why did this happen to me? It isn’t fair.” Moses confronts us — the latter generation that he is addressing — with independent testimony that cannot be denied: the actual history of the people of Israel from the very beginning to the very end, for it is all encapsulated in HA-AZINU. “Remember the days of the universe, understand the years of generation after generation; ask your father and he will inform you, your grandfather and they will tell you…” (v. 7). What has happened in the past and what is happening now to Israel is of significance to the entire world. For Israel is at the very center. “When the Supreme gave the peoples their inheritance, when He spread out the children of man, He established the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the Children of Israel…” (v. 8).
The history of Israel is the history of Adam writ large. Adam was created out of dust and nothingness and placed in G-d’s sublime garden, but he quickly rebelled and sinned, causing G-d to punish and chasten him, in order to make him repent and to cleanse him. Similarly, G-d “found” the Children of Israel in a wild, desolate land and built them into a nation, giving them to ride on the high places of the earth — the land of Israel and Jerusalem. But their very good fortune and prosperity became their undoing. “And Yeshurun became fat and he kicked” — causing G-d to let loose all the evils and terrors of persecution and oppression that have plagued the people of Israel for thousands of years. Only when we internalize the message that rebellion leads to nothing but pain in the end, and that we have no recourse except in G-d — only then will G-d relent and swing everything around to goodness and blessing — VE-ZOT HABRACHAH (the closing parshah of the Torah).
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G-D ALWAYS HAS THE UPPER HAND
We cannot escape from G-d and His Covenant, with its privileges, responsibilities and its terrible sanctions. The stark severity of the message of HA-AZINU may cause discomfort among those in today’s obese, irreverent world who seek a sweet, undemanding spirituality that complements and enhances contemporary lifestyle without causing any radical upsets. People are bewildered by the war, terror, crime, disease and other scourges afflicting us, but would like to see them as mere aberrations that should be able to be eliminated if only we could apply sufficient human ingenuity. HA-AZINU teaches the futility of trying to overcome these G-d-sent scourges without confronting the rebelliousness and deviousness in our own hearts. For G-d always has the upper hand. “For I am He, and there is no god with Me: I kill and make alive, I struck the blow and I will heal, and none can save from My hand” (v. 39).
“If only they would be wise and apply their intelligence to this, and understand their latter end. How could one chase after a thousand and two put ten thousand to flight if not because their Rock sold them and HaShem delivered them?” (vv. 29-30). How could it be that small groups of Nazis were able to uproot thousands from their homes and towns and lead them literally like lambs to the slaughter? How could it be that today a people that is not a people have the whole world dancing to their tune, while small cells of terrorists torment and demoralize the entire population? How can this be if not that it is G-d’s doing?
If it is true that our sins as a nation have brought us great suffering, it must also be true that the stirrings of Teshuvah in our hearts will also prove to be the channel for abundant blessing and peace. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that when Israel accepted the Torah, their essential wisdom lay in their willingness to throw away their own sophisticated wisdom and humbly submit themselves completely to G-d’s superior wisdom. Rabbi Nachman brings proof from Onkelos’ Aramaic translation of the verse in HA-AZINU: “O foolish people and not wise” (Deut. 32:6) — “O nation that received the Torah and were not sophisticated” (see Likutey Moharan I:123).
We cannot redeem ourselves with sophisticated ploys but only through taking the ancient, unglamorous path of Teshuvah — honest self-scrutiny, remorse, contrition, owning up to the foolishness and evil in our own hearts and taking ourselves in hand in order to better fulfill G-d’s commandments. HA-AZINU calls to repent with all our hearts and come home to G-d as we stand before Him in prayer during these Days of Awe. Repentance — Teshuvah — is the hallmark of the true savior, Melech Mashiach, as personified in David, the messianic king of Israel. David came to complete the work of Moses in rectifying the original sin of Adam. The striking fact about David is that he sinned. His greatness lay in the fact that he had the courage to acknowledge it, and to repent. The true messiah is not a flawless, superhuman saint who rides on clouds of glory. He is one who — on his level — knows sin and knows the devices of man’s heart. And he knows that only G-d can rectify.
“Cleanse me of my sin and purify me from my transgression… O G-d, create in me a pure heart and renew within me a proper spirit… I will teach sinners Your ways and transgressors will return to You” (Psalm 51).
As soon as we learn that there is no other way but to repent, we will be redeemed. And then: “Sing aloud — O you nations — of His people, For He does avenge the blood of His servants and render vengeance to His adversaries, and will make atonement for the land of His people.”
Shabbat Shalom! Shanah Tovah! Gmar ChaTimah Tovah!
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum